On 22 June, angry villagers from at least thirteen panchayat areas gheraoed and protested outside the Block Development Office (BDO) in Deganga, a part of West Bengal’s North 24 Parganas district. The protestors, some of whom were also students who had helped organise the protests, were demanding that the Block Development Officer show them the list of people who had received Amphan relief funds. The West Bengal government had announced that it will transfer Rs 20,000 each to the 5 lakh families that were affected by the disaster that struck on 20 May.
“The villagers had to first make multiple trips to the BDO office to get their names registered for relief in the first place. A few weeks later, they figured that only those close to the BDO or the local panchayat members had received the direct cash transfer. Others had either not received the fund or only received it partially”, alleged Abhas*, a student from Bengaluru who had come back home due to the COVID-19 lockdown and was one of the protestors.
Public Corruption Charges Against TMC’s Middle Management
The day after the Deganga protests, a similar case was reported in South 24 Pargana’s Mathurapur. This time, however, a Panchayat Samiti member of the TMC, publicly admitted to siphoning off funds in front of an angry mob. He was swiftly suspended by the party.
There were also reports of people with two-storey houses being listed as “beneficiaries” of Amphan relief.
Sources say that an estimated 2,000 complaints have been received by Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee directly regarding siphoning of Amphan funds.
In response, the party has sent show-cause notices to numerous panchayat and block-level leaders. However, leaders above that rank have reportedly not been pulled up publicly.
A similar response could be seen after allegations surfaced in April-May of local TMC leaders hoarding grains meant for the Public Distribution System (PDS) during the COVID-19 lockdown. Before that, of course, there were protests starting last year on the Trinamool’s infamous “cut-money” culture, whereby party leaders would allegedly demand a “cut” from government schemes that they helped the public avail. According to the accusations, this cut would often be to the tune of 20-40 percent.
Following allegations of corruption in distribution of Amphan relief money, West Bengal Chief Minister and TMC Supremo Mamata Banerjee also set up an “all-party committee” following a meeting with the various Opposition parties at the state secretariat, Nabanna.
The TMC hailed this as a “move towards transparency”.
However, political observers are questioning whether such macro-level moves will help the party win the confidence at the grassroots’ level that their middle-level management is slowly letting slip.
“There were so-called “corruption charges” against the Trinamool before. There were the Saradha and Narada controversies right before the 2016 elections, but the party came out with flying colours”, said a senior Trinamool leader.
“However, when people were scammed in Saradha, they had the perception that they were looted by Saradha, not the government. With Narada too, corruption was seen as something only a few top leaders indulged in. But now the corruption charges that are surfacing involve public money which is being siphoned off at a time when there’s an unprecedented crisis. Grassroots leaders involved in this are making the party lose its credibility”, the leader added, further stating that mere show-cause notices or suspensions mean nothing in a rural/semi-rural scenario where these leaders hold massive social influence.
Disconnect Between Middle And Top Management
This influence is evident in the way that Abhas and the others were allegedly dealt with during the protests.
“A few hours into our protests, a bunch of goons descended from nowhere and attacked us. We were running helter-skelter and took shelter next to a petrol pump. When the police found us, they arrested me and 13 others. Our phones are still with the police”, he told The Quint.
There have been several such allegations ever since the TMC came to power in 2011.
“There has been a massive real estate mafia running in our locality since 2011. No land can be bought or sold without Trinamool middlemen being involved”, says Nilima*, a resident of West Bengal’s Burdwan town.
“There was one time when Trinamool men had brought some potential tenants to see a house that had been put up for rent. The landlord wasn’t at home and the Trinamool men were made to wait. Two months later, the owners of the house were pressurised to such an extent that they had to sell off the house at one-tenth its market value”, she alleged.
These corrupt practices by mid-level functionaries have been called out by top party leaders as well. In June, Trinamool MP Mahua Moitra posted a video on her Facebook page claiming that funds were not being utilised properly by gram panchayats and that infrastructural work remained unfinished. She further claimed that panchayats were not commissioning work involving expenditure of over Rs 3.5 lakh as that would open them up to mandatory scrutiny by the administration.
While the MP was unavailable for comment, a senior Trinamool leader pointed at the disconnect between the top-rung leaders and the middle-order functionaries.
"While the top-level is trying in some cases to weed out corrupt people, one must remember that a lot of these people were also initially inducted into the party for their money and muscle power. Now that they have been institutionalized, they are looking to make back the money they had invested,” the Trinamool leader said.
There is also the fear of defection which, sources say, affect voting patterns in smaller areas and also cause major face-loss to the party.
If They Are Public Offenders, Why Is The Party Show-Causing Them?: BJP
Speaking to The Quint, BJP Vice President for West Bengal, Jay Prakash Majumdar, said that the Trinamool’s attempts at “publicly punishing” the corrupt among its ranks, was nothing but an eyewash.
“When the corruption was caught, the people were show-caused by the party. But the funds did not belong to the party. It is the public’s and the taxpayer’s funds. If public funds are misused, they should be dealt with administratively and legally. Why is the party becoming the judge, jury and executioner? Who are they?” asked Majumdar.
“The panchayat elections in 2018 were violently won, with the TMC winning 34 percent seats uncontested. Whoever wanted to be a TMC candidate had to pay a ransom to the party. When a public representative comes to power without the popular vote, they have no responsibility towards the public. How are they expected to act responsibly now?” he added.
Lack of transparency in its middle order and also growing political violence in the grassroots was one of the reasons cited for the Trinamool’s below par performance in the 2019 Lok Sabha Elections, where it lost 18 out of 42 seats to the BJP, which earlier just held two Lok Sabha seats in the state.
Sources in the party say that this problem of a corrupt grassroot leadership is one that the Trinamool is actively trying to tackle, with the Chief Minister herself giving stern warnings from time to time that no such activities will be tolerated. But are show-cause notices and public renouncements enough to reign in truant functionaries?
(*Name changed to protect identity)